The win over Villarreal in La Liga showed that Barca were trying to adjust their style of play, and were freed from their dependence on Lionel Messi.
In the first 20 minutes of the Villarreal match, Messi only touched the ball six times, but Barca scored twice thanks to a brace from rising star Ansu Fati, following assists from Jordi Alba and Philippe Coutinho. Ronald Koeman’s reign has started differently from at least three of his predecessors Luis Enrique, Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setien. In all three of those periods, Messi scored his first goal.
If you look closely at Fati’s two goals, it can be seen that Messi missed at least once in the first goal. When Alba received the ball at the bottom of the margin, both Fati and Messi moved closer and asked for the ball. Alba did not pass to Messi, just a few steps behind Fati. When the man cushioned the ball into the Goalkeeper Asenjo’s net to open the scoring, Messi jumped slightly as a reflex when he made the shot. Also, he was uncomfortable with his teammate’s pass.
According to statistics firm Opta, messi made only 54 passes, far behind leader Frenkie De Jong (74) and three others, Alba (73), Gerard Pique (69) and Sergio Busquets (60). Coutinho, wearing the number 14 shirt, was in fact free to play at No.10, played a role in organising the game, also passing the ball 44 times, only slightly behind Messi despite playing 20 minutes less than his team-mates.
In theory, Manager Koeman arranged Messi to play the highest in the attacking line in a virtual No.9 role, with the trio behind fati, Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann. But Messi operates wide and regularly plays lower than his three team-mates. The heat map shows that he appears most in the position behind Griezmann, who is on the right wing. Messi is still involved in the opening of attacking phases, but is no longer the one who performs the whole stage of sparking – finishing as usual in previous eras. Very often, Messi seeks to sneak into the penalty area in search of a definitive opportunity.
This was a highlight of the idea that Koeman claimed when he took charge of Barca. Off the pitch, Messi no longer has the privilege of training, resting as required by the individual, but must follow the general plan. On the field, no.10 still carries the captain’s band, and is the leader of the game, but is no longer the center of every line as before. Those moves showed that Koeman wanted Messi to be held accountable, breaking the situation of the team being overly dependent on him as before.